Aside from the frolicking of the Greek gods, the bedroom high jinks of the European royals may be the closest thing we have to a ready-made literary-historical soap opera. The saga of Henry VIII has always had a special contempo juiciness. Yes, it happened 500 years ago, but it hinges on the invention — or, at least, the popularization — of divorce, a fact portrayed with indelible flair in such pop cultural touchstones as A Man for All Seasons and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The latest incarnation of the saga, The Other Boleyn Girl, is a classy romantic cocktail distinguished by its tart yet breezy bite. It was written by Peter Morgan, and here, as in the two celebrated films he scripted in 2006 — The Queen and The Last King of Scotland — Morgan displays a breathless fascination with the lace-on-steel intricacies of power. He turns gossip into art, or tries to.
Early in The Other Boleyn Girl, we’re asked to marvel at the unseemliness of the Boleyn men, as they engineer a liaison at the family’s country estate between their eldest eligible lass, the dark-haired flirt Anne (Natalie Portman), and King Henry himself (Eric Bana), whose queen has failed, over and over, to provide him with a male heir. It’s funny, in a grand way, to see a scandalous extramarital fling orchestrated with the pomp of a debutante ball. At the estate, Henry has a hunting accident that results, indirectly, from Anne’s hubris. He returns, in a huff, to the royal court, and the only way that the family can get back in his good graces is to offer up its other daughter, the wholesome, honey blond Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Which makes the whole sordid setup feel like a glorified act of pimping.
The king takes to Mary — to her curves and her amber waves of hair, to her gentle supplicant nature. (Few actresses know how to submit with the parted-lip sensuality of Scarlett Johansson.) That’s how the Boleyns, with an ambition that is literally naked, open the door to power. Yet the quality that Morgan, as a screenwriter, is most drawn to is the power of persuasion — the kind that intrigues with its duplicity, that harvests bold choices from limited opportunities. Thus the agent of action the movie revolves around is Anne, who after a brief exile to France returns, ready to exert her influence in a way that’s both cold and admirable, ruthless yet nobly feminist. She will have the king after all, but on her own terms. And she’ll make him think it was on his.
The Other Boleyn Girl offers the pleasures you want, and expect, from a middlebrow royal-court soaper. The actors playing the scheming Boleyns flex their eyebrows on dastardly cue, and the director, Justin Chadwick, shoots the castle interiors with a grandeur just primitive enough to make parlors barely distinguishable from tower prison cells. As Henry, Eric Bana, huge and mighty and bearded, his eyes aglow, wears his big square layers of decorative fabric with majestic physicality. He’s courtlier, less infantile, than the Henrys we’re used to, until he gets to the bedroom, where he treats women like legs of mutton — as tasty treats to be devoured.
A disenchanted fairy tale about what happens after its sister Cinderellas move to the castle, The Other Boleyn Girl is crisply enjoyable, its cynicism polished to a high sheen, yet there’s also something rigid and slightly locked-in about it. Morgan’s characters are a little too abstract this time. They manipulate engagingly, yet they don’t fully breathe. Adapting a novel by Philippa Gregory, Morgan imposes a structure that is nearly always visible — far more so than in his modern political dramas (like The Queen or the rise?of?Tony Blair teleplay The Deal), in which the psychology of the scheme is all. Henry, after countless mistresses, is supposed to finally fall hard for the one woman who will stand up to him. But the way the film presents it, his latent swooning is just another piece in the puzzle. You don’t quite buy it.
What you do believe is the self-deluded treachery of Portman’s Anne. There’s a bold new authority to the actress’ sensuality. She sparkles with deception, daring to flaunt passion as well as ambition. Anne, a woman ahead of her time, isn’t quite shrewd enough about her own time. Yet as she uses her wiles, not merely to seduce the king but to render that seduction legitimate, she fulfills herself and destroys herself, making the world safe for social climbers everywhere. B